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San Diego's houseplant industry had to change

Coastal North County was the center

Mac Garrant with Hawaiin seedlings and Costa Rican cuttings. "There are only seven or eight large foliage growers in the Encinitas area still growing specimen plants from seeds or seedlings."
  • Mac Garrant with Hawaiin seedlings and Costa Rican cuttings. "There are only seven or eight large foliage growers in the Encinitas area still growing specimen plants from seeds or seedlings."
  • Image by Jack Yon

Thirty years ago, when it was still possible to live in the beach communities of North County by pursuing some ambition other than getting rich, the nursery business was dominated by mom-and-pop operators who had decided that a modest life doing what they wanted to do was better than an affluent life doing what they couldn’t stand. They were people with a green thumb who had stumbled onto this out-of-the-way plant paradise where the temperatures were mild, the winters brief, the land cheap, and the living slow.

One of Garant's plants. Marc Granat has toured the world looking for nurseries able to supply him with propagation material.

One of Garant's plants. Marc Granat has toured the world looking for nurseries able to supply him with propagation material.

Typical of those early greenhouse growers was Horace Anderson, who had been a milkman in Venice, California, during the Depression and a feed store owner after the war and who, until he went into the nursery business, didn’t know the difference between an annual and a perennial. Horace and his wife, Mary, selected a two-acre site in Leucadia for their nursery on the basis of a climate map of the U.S., which showed that a strip of coastal land between Oceanside and Del Mar had the most uniform climate in the nation. Before Horace Anderson passed away in 1981, he had become a world-renowned horticulturist who had introduced a half-dozen exotic plants into the foliage industry. A lesser-known part of his legacy is the dozens of Mexican nursery workers who still remember him fondly as “Grandpa Nose” because as toddlers, when their fathers worked for him, he taught them their first words of English, beginning with “nose.”

Spathiphyllum Tasson grown from tissue culture. “One investor grew 200,000 spathiphyllums. When they were mature, he dumped them at what had been half the market price."

Spathiphyllum Tasson grown from tissue culture. “One investor grew 200,000 spathiphyllums. When they were mature, he dumped them at what had been half the market price."

In those days, most of the greenhouse growers made their livings in the cut-flower business. Tropical foliage was something used to decorate the lobbies of expensive hotels, the homes of wealthy collectors, or the sets of Hollywood movies. The newly born houseplant industry had been smothered in its crib by the invention of plastic — all over America, housewives, in love with their TV dreams of easy living, were decorating their homes with almost-realistic plastic ferns that never had to be watered or fertilized and never wilted under the touch of their brown thumbs.

In some ways, the greening of America’s living rooms was caused by the very plastic that almost killed the houseplant industry. Sometime in the Sixties, Americans gagged on plastic. Rather than a synonym for better living, plastic became the word that described everything that was wrong with our food, our highway landscapes, our personalities, and our home decor. It was partly America’s revulsion for plastic that started the organic movement of the late Sixties and inspired Americans trapped in their ferrocement office bunkers to soothe their overstressed nerves by filling their living spaces with living plants.

Hot pipes used to hasten rooting process

Hot pipes used to hasten rooting process

Just about the time America’s garbage dumps were filling with plastic plants that would stay green throughout all eternity, Marc Granat was playing guitar in a rock and roll band in the San Francisco Bay area. Originally from North Hollywood, he had dropped out of high school after the Summer of Love to pursue his dream of having his own band. Within three years, his band was touring with Jefferson Airplane and had even cut a record with RCA — though, looking back, he admits the record and the band were so bad that their names should never again be spoken. “It was the fulfillment of a dream,” he says. “I had hair down to my waist — and the whole thing. But after a few years, the excitement wore off. I got tired of living on the road and never having any money.” At the age of twenty-four, back in L.A., Granat decided it was time to look for a real job. His first tentative experiment with regular employment was as a watering boy at a nursery in North Hollywood. “At first I had no interest in plants, except as a way to get a paycheck. But it didn't take me long to see that working with plants was something new and interesting. They moved me up to salesman, and even though I didn't have a horticultural background, in a few weeks, I sounded [he laughs) very knowledgeable.”

After work at night, Granat began digging up tropical plants that grew wild on the old estates in the Hollywood hills. “I'd stick them in a pot, take them to the swap meet, and sell them that weekend — a complete shyster, but at least I learned there was an eager market out there for houseplants ”

Granat's next move was to quit his job at the nursery, start buying plants wholesale from the big greenhouses, and begin retailing them out of his van. “I used to follow this catering truck around. It would go to the underground garages in Century City, and all the secretaries would come down from their offices. After a while, the catering truck guy told me not to come around anymore because the girls were spending all their lunch money on plants.”

Then Granat began holding plant parties —just like Tupperware parties. ”A secretary would have fifteen of her friends over, and I'd get up and give a little speech on how to take care of the plants. I would sell anywhere from two hundred to a thousand dollars' worth of plants at each party, and I was holding seven or eight parties a week. I was doing real well, just hustling plants. But somehow I still didn’t take the business seriously. I guess I just couldn’t believe I had the gift of gab to make it in sales.”

Soon Granat became dissatisfied with the price and availability of wholesale plants in L.A., but he’d heard there was a place down near San Diego, called Encinitas, where there were lots of greenhouses. “When I first came to Encinitas, in 1975, it opened a whole new world for me. I had no idea the plant business was so large. Every street in Encinitas had its own greenhouse. And every greenhouse had a family with its own story — the Andersons, the Weidners, the Eckes. And every greenhouse had its own clientele, selling to plant hustlers like me in Phoenix, Vegas, and L A.”

The greenhouse growers in Encinitas enjoyed dealing with the young hustlers like Granat. “We were bringing a whole new surge of popularity to house plants, because we were putting them in the streets — hardly anybody was doing retail sales on a street level then.” Through his association with the greenhouse growers like Horace Anderson, who wore his hair long and spent most of his time traveling through Mexico in search of exotic plants, Granat began to think of the nursery business as an interesting, legitimate, and lucrative way to make a living. “I started buying vanloads of houseplants and selling them on the street, on routes all through L.A. I was working sixty hours a week, making all kinds of money, with no competition. I had no overhead, no store, just my van, my gas, and my contacts in the nursery business. For the first time in my life, I realized that the harder I worked, the more I had to show for it at the end of the day.”

Eventually Granat’s enthusiasm for selling plants on the streets of L.A. led to a mild case of burnout. “The thing I hate most in this world is being stuck on the freeway at four o’clock in the afternoon, somewhere north of San Clemente. All the freeway driving got to me — plus, I just hated L.A. So I moved to Encinitas, in an apartment just above Moonlight Beach, and started a new route hustling plants down here.”

About this time, Granat began to realize there were more opportunities in houseplants than just retailing them on the street. “The popularity of house-plants came on so fast that nobody in the industry was ready for the explosion. For example, when the local grower wanted propagation material to start new plants, they would call their orders into the big brokerage companies on the East Coast, and the broker would call some guy down in Costa Rica who would go out in the jungle and snip a few cuttings. Very unsophisticated. There were only two or three big companies selling propagation material then, all back East.”

Granat received an offer to move to Hawaii and start a corporation selling tropical propagation material (seeds, cuttings, and canes that growers use to start new plants) to greenhouse growers on the West Coast. He accepted the offer, and he moved to Hawaii. Though that corporation was ill-fated, lasting less than a year, Granat was able to establish contacts with all the major nurseries in Hawaii, which was rapidly emerging as a major growing center for rare and exotic tropical foliage from all over the Orient.

Granat decided to move back to Encinitas and start his own company, brokering Hawaiian plants to Encinitas, acting as a middleman between propagation nurseries and local growers who needed the propagation material. “At first I couldn’t believe how fast my business was growing, how fast I was making sales,” he says. “The local growers were eager to do business with me. The big brokerage companies had never had any competition on the West Coast, there was never any personal contact with the growers, and they were overcharging by ten to fifteen percent. Within a year and a half, by working hard, trying to be honest, and taking a fair profit, I was blowing the big brokerage companies completely out of the area.”

Every year since Granat started Encinitas Foliage Imports, in 1977, his company’s gross sales have at least doubled, and last year they were $2.6 million. The hungry-looking rock ’n’ roller has become a calm, methodical, prosperous-looking businessman. Today Granat sells wholesale propagation material to ninety percent of the major growers of interior foliage in San Diego County. During the nine years since he started his business, he has watched the house plant industry grow enormously, from a handful of mom-and-pop growers and ex-hippies hustling plants out of their vans, into an increasingly sophisticated and complex network of big corporations, highly competitive brokers chattering to their contacts over their Telex machines, and mass-market retail outlets selling $1.2 billion worth of plants per year in the United States.

“I guess I knew the foliage industry had gone big-time the day I got a phone call from a guy in Kansas City who wanted to invest in some syndicated nursery corporation I’d never even heard of. ‘Hello, this is Mr. So-and-so,’ the guy said. ‘Can you tell me the marketability of a six-foot Areca palm seven years from now if we have fifty thousand of them?’ ” Granat just rocked back in his chair and stared at the ceiling.

Between 1978 and 1980, there was a twenty-percent increase in the square footage of greenhouse space in the state of California. In San Diego County, the value of greenhouse and nursery products had grown to $116 million — the highest in the nation. Everybody, it seemed, was jumping into the expanding market for house plants. Texas, Hawaii, and particularly Florida also experienced huge growths in their nursery industries. The older greenhouse growers expanded their operations, investment companies began buying nurseries for the lucrative tax write-offs, and huge corporations such as Weyerhaeuser, Ralston Purina, and Campbell’s Soup started their own nursery operations.

By 1981, the inevitable finally happened — houseplant glut. There were simply too many producers, and the wholesale price on houseplants crashed. At the same time, there was a nationwide recession, and people had less money to spend on novelties like philodendrons and scheffleras. Interest rates were at eighteen percent, and a lot of growers who had borrowed money to expand their operations started losing their shirts.

“The nursery business had never had a lot of sharp businessmen,” Granat says. “It was mostly a lot of colorful characters who were in business because they liked the lifestyle. The mom-and-pop growers had never seen the kind of demand the industry experienced in the Seventies, but they never saw the kind of competition that came in the Eighties, either. It was a very strange time in the nursery business, a very uncertain time. A lot of the older guys had never worried about efficiency or modernizing their operations, so when things got tight and profit margins shrank, they couldn’t make it anymore — they just sold out and retired.”

For some of the growers, getting out of the nursery business was not the tragedy it might have been. “It was a good deal for a lot of them,” Granat says. “They’d bought their land in the Fifties when land was cheap, they’d slaved away in their greenhouses for thirty years, and now some developer came along and offered them $100,000 an acre for their land.”

Hastening the decline of the small greenhouse grower was the fact that some of the new growers — the doctors and dentists who had entered the industry as an investment — weren’t that concerned with making a profit. They enjoyed the tax write-offs and used the nurseries as a way to shelter prime pieces of coastal real estate until the day they would tear down the greenhouses and turn the land into condo developments. These investment growers, either ignorant or indifferent to market trends, sometimes made it almost impossible for the serious growers to survive. “One investor grew 200,000 spathiphyllums. When they were mature, he dumped them at what had been half the market price, and for two years afterward, nobody else wanted to grow spathiphyllums,” Granat says.

To make matters worse, the retail market — the way houseplants were sold to the public — went through a complete revolution. Granat explains, “The most dominant change to take place in the foliage industry in the last ten years was when the huge supermarket chains — Vons, Ralphs, Safeway — decided to sell houseplants in their produce departments.”

The mass marketing of foliage by the chain stores meant doom for most small plant stores and street-corner hustlers. It also meant price wars among the growers. “The trouble with the chain stores is they are ruthless when they buy. Their produce buyer — the same guy who buys their apples and oranges — buys their foliage, and he treats the growers just like... He gets on the phone and says, ‘I can get these ferns from the guy down the street at such-and-such a price. You wanna beat that price or not?' I guess that’s how- you stock a supermarket, but the foliage growers had never seen anything like that. The chains stores had everybody buffaloed for a while.”

This wasn’t necessarily bad for the consumer. In spite of twenty years of inflation, a hanging potted fern today costs about what it cost in the Sixties. But what most consumers don't know is that the fern is a cheaper variety, cultivated to grow rapidly under greenhouse conditions, and won't last as long as the plant they might have bought twenty years ago.

The price wars forced a lot of small-and medium-size growers out of the industry. But, as Granat says, “I suppose it was inevitable — the natural evolution of a garden industry turned professional. It’s big-time now, big numbers. We’re talking about truckloads and truckloads full of plants going to Safeway’s main distribution center in La Habra and from there going out to their 2000 stores around the United States. And that’s just one chain. The chain stores dominate, and they dictate to the industry now.”

Eventually the growers who survived the price wars learned to deal with the chain stores. “Some of the growers realized that with the mass marketing of houseplants, their profit margins would decline but their volumes would increase,” Granat says. “They could make a million pennies instead of a thousand dimes, and that realization caused a certain amount of optimism.” Still, every summer, when the price wars traditionally start, the growers eye each other nervously, laugh, and say, “How low will we go this year?”

Another revolution that hit the greenhouse industry and forced some growers to rethink their strategies for the future was the wave of technological developments in the propagation of new plants from lab-grown tissue cultures, rather than by the traditional vegetative method. Until a few years ago, most local growers kept “mother” plants on their premises, periodically taking seeds or cuttings from them to start their new plants. When the foliage industry exploded in the Seventies and growers realized they would have to make their profit by dealing in high volume, it was no longer practical for them to keep their own mother plants, which occupied about twenty-five percent of their greenhouse space. It made better sense for them to buy their propagation material from growers (usually in Hawaii or Latin America) who specialized in that and instead use their valuable greenhouse space for growing marketable plants.

When tissue-culture labs first appeared on the scene in the mid-Seventies, most greenhouse growers didn’t take them very seriously. “They were considered a fad,” Granat says. “We'd get these flyers in the mail from some lab back in Houston, and there’d be this picture of a guy in a white shirt and tie, playing around with his test tubes. On the wall behind him was a production schedule. They just didn’t seem like greenhouse kind of people ”

But by the early Eighties, university and corporate laboratories had perfected the tissue cultures — or “clones,” as they are commonly called in the industry — to the degree that they were competitive with the old vegetative method of propagation. The new technology brought a revolution to the foliage industry. “All of a sudden, here came the clones!” Granat recalls.

The tissue-culture clones are grown from cells taken from the plant meristem, the growing point of the plant, which is capable of dividing and producing identical plants indefinitely. The clones are raised in a sterile growing medium until they are large enough to be shipped to the grower, who then transplants them from the sterile medium into growing pots.

The high expense of starting a tissue-culture lab has prevented most local growers from getting involved (though Chino Greenhouses in Leucadia started its own lab for propagating ferns in 1977). The price growers have to pay for the tissue-culture clones is still somewhat higher than most vegetative material, but there are several advantages that make the clones competitive: they come from “clean” stock, meaning they are relatively free from diseases; they are available year round; the propagation of rare plants and plants that reproduce slowly is made easier; and the process speeds up the creation of mutations, some of which are introduced into the industry as new varieties of plants.

There are some advantages to vegetative propagation as opposed to tissue-culture propagation, though, and these advantages keep the nurseries that sell the vegetative material in business: some varieties of clones are slower growing and generally less hearty than vegetative propagation material; some plants simply don’t lend themselves to tissue-culture propagation; and the vegetative propagation material is still cheaper than the tissue-culture material. There is also a certain amount of emotional resistance to the clones among some growers. More and more, the indefinable talent known as a “green thumb,” which the old growers prided themselves on, is being replaced by a dehumanized technology backed by big corporations with big bucks. Horticulturists are being replaced by technicians, and nurseries are being replaced by plant factories. But does the woman who goes to Ralphs to buy a Ficus lyrata to put on her coffee table know — or care — if the plant was started in a test tube? Probably not, and most growers, regardless of their personal opinions, have had to switch to at least some lab-grown stock just to compete in the industry. Marc Granat and other brokers like him have also had to begin selling lab-grown stock, as the industry becomes more and more competitive.

Since the tissue-culture labs aren’t dependent upon a climate with a long growing season and their shipping costs are relatively small, they can be located anywhere. In fact, very few of them are in California. And since they are usually backed by large corporations that aren’t necessarily concerned with making an immediate profit, they can afford to indulge in price wars that tend to force out of business those greenhouse growers who specialize in supplying vegetative propagation material.

As the armies of clonal sales representatives beat on the fiber-glass doors of greenhouse growers, trying to sell them on the miracles of modern science, the growers have to wonder. Will the tissue culture labs be the salvation of greenhouse growers, or will they be one more step toward taking the industry out of the hands of relatively small nurserymen and putting it in the hands of large corporations whose interest in the foliage industry is just a footnote in the operations of one small subsidiary of the parent corporation?

While some foliage growers in North County are optimistic enough about the future to have added a few extra feet of greenhouse space to their operations in the last couple of years, most growers remain rather skeptical. Gas and electricity prices in the county remain among the highest in the nation, and the availability of water for the next ten years is a very big question mark. Furthermore, the urbanization of North County makes it increasingly unlikely that an agriculture industry, with its noise, trucks, chemicals, and cheap labor force, will be tolerated here. The recent June election, which incorporated the communities of Solana Beach, Cardiff, Encinitas, Olivenhain, and Leucadia, further alienated the greenhouse growers from the residents — many of whom have lived in this area less time than it takes for some palm seeds to germinate. The general opinion among greenhouse growers is that the cut-flower business is now finished around here, and the foliage industry, if it is unable to adapt to change, may not be far behind. But if the growers leave San Diego, where might they go?

Marc Granat, now thirty-five, has toured the world looking for nurseries able to supply him with propagation material. Last year he put more than 50,000 air miles on his frequent flier's card, and he considers among his best friends growers in Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, Colombia, and Hawaii. His worldwide overview of the industry has given him some clues as to what might be in store for the growers. “If it weren’t for the strict importation laws, I don’t think there’d be a greenhouse grower left in the United States,” he says. “They'd all be in Mexico or somewhere else in Latin America.”

The biggest restriction for importing plants into this country is “Quarantine-37” which prohibits shipping a plant into the United States in the medium in which it was grown. Originally intended to protect against pathogens in the soil, the present effect of the law is to limit imports mainly to bare-root fruit trees packed in sawdust, and to seeds, cuttings, and other propagation material. Of all the Latin American countries, only Puerto Rico, by being a U.S. commonwealth and therefore exempt from Q-37, is able to compete in the U.S. foliage market.

“Some guys are looking at Utah as a place to relocate, because of the geothermal energy there,” Granat says. “They have 180-degree water at the ground surface for heating a greenhouse. One grower in Vista, Dick Hildebrand [of Hildebrand Nurseries], has already built a huge greenhouse in southern Utah and has turned his place in Vista into a warehouse and distribution center”

Hawaii has also claimed a large share of the foliage business in recent years.

Growing plants in Hawaii is cheaper than in California because greenhouses aren’t necessary there — the growing is done outdoors under shade netting. Only the cost of shipping the plants to the mainland prevents the Hawaiians from dominating the foliage market on the West Coast of the United States.

But in recent years, it is Florida that has attracted the largest number of foliage growers. “They have a tropical climate, cheap land, cheap labor,” says Granat. “You can do anything you want to do back in that swampland — and they don’t have any of the restrictions we have here in San Diego.” Among those restrictions are the use of pesticides near residential areas, land-use zoning, and building codes.

In recent years, Florida has started trucking into California large quantities of specimen-size plants — plants that have been grown to large sizes. Local growers aren’t able to compete in that market because specimen plants take so much longer to grow. So California growers began putting pressure on the state legislature to protect California’s nursery industry, and California’s agricultural inspectors soon began strictly enforcing some of this state’s agricultural codes that had been lax for many years. After California’s agriculture inspectors began turning back trucks full of tropical house plants from Florida because they were found to be infected with insects or with burrowing nematodes (a worm that can be harmful to citrus trees), a black-market business of “plant runners” was born.

A few enterprising truckers learned how to evade the border inspections by traveling only the back roads at night. There also developed what became known in the industry as the “Texas connection”: for a fee of $500, a postoffice-box “greenhouse” in Texas would “certify” Florida-grown plants as being insect-free, thereby evading an inspection by California agriculture inspectors. The nursery industry had become lucrative enough to start its own interstate commerce wars, and California was definitely losing. But the one advantage California growers have that growers in Hawaii, Florida, and Texas don’t have is a huge local market for houseplants. Every time the Los Angeles Times runs a feature in its Sunday supplement on decorating with a new variety of plant, the nurseries are besieged with buyers eager to buy that particular plant. Some large growers around the country now engage in expensive advertising and promotional campaigns in California to create the demand for a new variety of plant, such as the Dallas fern, before the plant is even released to the California market.

Because California has the huge demand for houseplants, what used to be the plant-growing industry in San Diego’s North County is rapidly evolving into a distribution center for the foliage business. Some growers believe this will be the future of the nursery industry in this area. The most obvious example of this trend is the number of local greenhouses that specialize in “acclimatizing” plants grown elsewhere, plants that might have difficulty surviving the shock of a new climate, a different amount of sunlight, a change in the chemical composition of the water and soil, and so on. In addition, many of the plants trucked in from Florida and Texas are considered to be of inferior quality when compared to California-grown plants. Even plants from Hawaii, though of high quality, often arrive here in poor condition because of the shock of travel. In recent years, thirteen nurseries in the Encinitas area have converted from growing their own plants to acclimatizing plants that were grown to specimen size in Florida, Texas, or Hawaii. “That's a large number if you consider that there are only seven or eight large foliage growers in the Encinitas area still growing specimen plants from seeds or seedlings," Granat says. In effect, many growers have decided it's cheaper for them to ship in plants grown somewhere else, nurse them into the quality expected by the California consumers, then resell them.

Another new trend in the foliage industry is the large number of “plantscapers" who cater to those plant lovers who want to have plants in their homes or businesses but don't have the time or inclination to buy and care for them. These plantscapers often operate out of the back of a van, traveling a route of residential and commercial customers through communities such as La Jolla, Rancho Santa Fe, and Del Mar. They purchase large numbers of quality, specimen-size plants for their customers and have become a major new outlet for greenhouse growers in San Diego County.

Marc Granat's eyes light up when he considers the opportunities available to an energetic young plantscaper with a van and a green thumb. After all, he got his start just that way. The industry may have gone through a revolution in the ten short years since he began, but the opportunities are still there. “Plantscapers represent the only part of the nursery business that is really growing fast now,” he says. “And anybody with a van, a spray bottle, and twenty customers can get in on it. It’s mom and pop all over again."

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